Monday, September 20, 2010

Remember that NPR story I was working on . . .?

I blogged about doing an NPR story on first novels a couple of weeks ago, giving listener Arnie Kahn credit for nudging me into finding the time to do some on-air reporting again.

Well, the story finally got done, completed around the edges of my days now mostly spent editing, blogging and Facebooking, and it aired yesterday on Weekend Edition Sunday. "Two First Novels, 10 Years in the Making " took a look at former C'ville resident Jessica Francis Kane's first novel, The Report, and Susanna Daniel's first novel, Stiltsville.

Okay, gang, here's some inside scoop on reporting for NPR. Sometimes you get to take a break from saving the world through radio and just have fun. And I had fun with my first novel story.

Colin Harrison

Colin Harrison has long been one of my favorite noire thriller writers. He's published seven novels, all wildly successful critically and sales-wise. His latest book, Risk, began as one of those nifty serialized mystery/thrillers in The New York Times Magazine. He's also an editor with Simon & Schuster, so he was the perfect person to talk about both writing a first novel and editing them.

Writers are my rock stars -- I'm unabashedly delighted when I get to talk with one I enjoy reading. So I was flat-out psyched to talk with Colin Harrison. He could have been an old grump, of course, but no!  Mr. Harrison was a blast of an interview -- funny, generous, and just plain nice.

In the course of our conversation, he gabbled merrily on about his own first completed-but-never-published  novel. He described this opus as "terrible," and rightfully consigned to a life of "moldering away in our basement" in Brooklyn.

I immediately had an idea.

Most writers, in my experience, would rather walk naked down Broadway then let loose their "bad" work.
"I don't suppose there's a chance in hell, you'd let NPR have a page to put up on the website as part of the  build-out for the story?" I asked. (A build-out is web-only material attached to an on-air story.)

There was a long pause. And then a chuckle. "Sure," he said. "Why not."

So my part of the web build-out for the First Novel story tells of my conversation with Colin Harrison about his dreadful first novel. And, if you missed it on the NPR website yesterday, I thought you might get some fun out of reading it today.

The excerpt from Colin Harrison's really bad first completed novel is at the end.

Lessons In Novel Writing (Learned The Hard Way) 

by Martha Woodroof

Colin Harrison, author of seven uncommonly successful novels, has actually written eight. He describes his first, The Prince of the Power of the Air, as "a baggy, sloppy, erratic animal." And he views its universal rejection by everyone as a "fantastic stroke of luck."
"First of all," he says, "my style was very immature. I was still learning the most rudimentary techniques required of novelists. How do you get people in and out of a room? What's a chapter? What's a paragraph? How do you construct dialogue?  What's too much dialogue?"
Harrison has a great laugh, especially for a writer of dark, New York-centric thrillers that stay in your psyche like real experience. And he laughs a lot while talking about The Prince.
"I was trying to work out too many of my own personal questions on paper," he says, "and what happened is that I wrote a novel that was relevant to me and almost no one else."
While writing his first unpublishable novel — you can read an excerpt from it here — Harrison says he had to grapple mightily with the novel's form. That grappling, he says, is ongoing, as it is for any novelist trying to write something new. "I think each novelist, each time out, has to learn how to write a novel all over again. It's a literary form that requires struggle to comprehend and control."
Harrison began writing seriously in his teens. As for that first novel? "It was for me, as it is for every young novelist, an intensely personal, passionate, anxiety-stricken undertaking," he recalls. "It seemed like the impossible thing that I had to try to do. And you know, I was young and foolish and energetic enough to actually do it."
Harrison, who's also an editor for Simon and Schuster, says the first novels he publishes are written by people who know what they're doing. "That sounds obvious, but there is a lot of what I'll call 'accomplished mediocrity' out there," he explains. "Writers working hard, but writing what at the end of the day are not utterly fabulous novels. And my job as an editor is not to find middling novels."
So what makes for first-novel fabulous?  Manuscripts, Harrison says, that "have a kind of quick first step right into the story, and that are themselves all the way. They don't change rhetoric. They don't change direction. There's a clarity to them.  There's an authority to them." He wants to publish books that are "a great reading experience. I'm looking to be entertained. Thrilled. Made aghast. Horrified. Titillated. All that stuff."
Piece of cake, right?

Excerpt: 'The Prince of the Power of the Air'

By Colin Harrison

All is still, and the house is very cold. Then she remembers she is not due to work today. "Go home and have Christmas with your papa," Mrs. Lee has said. "A place like this ain't the place for you to be day like Christ-mas." She couldn't have convinced Mrs. Lee otherwise.  She shivers on her way down the stairs. In the kitchen she flicks on the radio.
"Icyroadsthismerrymorning and...cominguponWXLC..." Her father has not eaten breakfast. The back door is open.  The door has been open all night; a thin drift of snow has blown across the kitchen floor.  Jennifer pulls on a coat, her face tight and lips pinched.  Outside, the bright cold hits her face, waking her completely.  So cold, even for December, she thinks.  The bushes and trees are crusted with ice and dusted with snow.  The world has suddenly frozen solid and airless and dead.  Yet the sky is clear, a gold rising sun.  She sees the tractor is not in front of the barn, where it was when she had gone to sleep. Huge skid marks crisscross the shallow snow in a crazy spaghetti tangle; her father has been out during the night. Chunks of frozen mud lay aside the tracks.  Spinning his wheels in the mud, she thinks. Why did she not hear it? The snow muffled the sound, perhaps.  Was she so deeply, so trustfully asleep? The huge barn door is bolted shut, bolted with a sense of finality about it that makes her stand still.  Only the wind makes any sound, scraping along loose boards, up rusty tin rainspouts and across the ragged shingle roof of the barn.
From The Prince of the Power of the Air by Colin Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Colin Harrison.

1 comment:

  1. Martha, last Sunday morning you joined me for breakfast. First your name and then your voice came into my kitchen.

    Thank you for writing not only a fun story but an encouraging one for aspiring writers.